FORT BRAGG, N.C. - “Essayons” is their motto and it means “Let us try.” It is an expression of readiness for anything and dedication to their profession. They have fought in every American war. They support the infantry on the battlefield and are required to be proficient in the tactics of the war-fighter and experts in the engineer trade. They are Sappers: combat engineers that have met the challenges of the U.S. Army Sapper Leaders Course.
Military engineers perform construction and demolition tasks. Responsible for building defensive fortifications and transportation routes as well as destroying those of the enemy, the engineer is an expert in mobility and counter-mobility. While the name engineer is often synonymous with the term Sapper, graduates of SLC are recognized as highly trained elites.
On June 28, 2004, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker recognized SLC graduates’ special abilities and expertise when he approved a distinguishing uniform tab for wear on Army uniforms. Placed on the left shoulder, the tab is red, reads Sapper in white letters and is one of five special skill tabs authorized for wear. It is a modest adornment that indicates the hard work and struggle they’ve endured to stand apart from their fellow soldiers. It is a sign of commitment to their profession and their training as leaders.
The four brigade combat teams of the 82nd Airborne Division each have an engineer company. Paratroopers of the 2nd Brigade’s engineer company have 15 Sapper tab bearers in their ranks. The 2nd BCT, also known as the Falcon Brigade, has nearly half of the division’s 33 engineer company Sappers. To the Paratroopers of the Falcon Brigade’s A Company, Special Troops Battalion, this is indicative of their proud legacy and their dedication to their mission.
“Having Sappers in the company is important,” said Capt. Thomas Fitzpatrick, the commander of A Company and an SLC graduate. “It’s important for the GRF [global response force] mission, the capability to accomplish decisive action operations and to provide that critical engineer support to the brigade commander and the maneuver task forces.”
Fitzpatrick said the number of Sappers within his company reinforces the confidence he has in their abilities and the quality of leadership for his Paratroopers.
“It’s not so much the tab; it’s the mindset,” he said. “These guys want to be the best. They want to achieve engineering excellence. They’ve proven themselves and that sets the example for the lower enlisted guys to achieve their best,” he said.
Becoming a Sapper is no easy task. To earn the tab, soldiers must attend SLC in Fort Leonardwood, Mo., where they negotiate a 28-day course that trains leaders from the ranks of corporal to captain and accepts all military occupational specialties. SLC is divided into two phases. According to the school’s website, the first phase covers general tasks like land navigation, first aid, conventional and expedient demolitions, foreign weapons, mountaineering and air and water operations. The second phase teaches urban operations, breaching, patrols, reconnaissance, and raid and ambush tactics. Successful graduation of the course also requires the troops to demonstrate the skills they’ve learned in an intensive five-day field training exercise that includes combined infantry and engineer-related missions.
Approximately half “wash out” by being unable to physically endure the rigors of the course or by failing to meet the required 700 out of 1,000 points required to graduate.
Graduates of the course not only find an increase in their own capabilities, but enrichment in the abilities of the unit as well.
“The actual tactical and technical knowledge that they bring back, as well as the competence that they possess once they return, is irreplaceable,” said 1st Sgt. Cory Bell, the A Company first sergeant and a Sapper.
The soldiers that go down there come back an entirely new leader, he said.
To test their Sappers and the paratroopers they lead, A Company recently conducted a week-long competition of combined technical and tactical tasks. Called Sapper stakes, the competition consisted of multiple lanes designed to challenge the squads on the critical engineer skills required to support decisive action operations. Decisive action is the Army’s training model that prepares troops to face conventional enemy military forces as well as guerilla, insurgent and criminal combatants.
After taking part in a helicopter air assault mission into the training area, the first task required each squad to perform a covert breach. In order to properly execute, the engineer squads had to gain entrance into and clear an enemy-held building or facility by cutting through wire obstacles and detecting traps. Because of the need for stealth, explosives and power cutting tools could not be used.
Once complete, the squads had to locate a patrol boat and cross a lake to a bridge where they conducted a demolition reconnaissance. Once the squads had secured the bridge, the squad leaders had to determine the best way to disrupt enemy use of the road. Under the pressure of a short time limit, they had to decide whether to destroy the bridge supports or create a crater in the road itself. Then they performed the selected task after determining the exact amount of explosives required.
As far as choosing between destroying the bridge and making a crater, there is not a right or wrong answer but they need to make the time limits and make the bridge inaccessible to the enemy, said Sgt. 1st Class Scott Tedeton, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the demolition reconnaissance lane.
After the mission, each squad crossed the lake again for their next objective. Once there, they were tasked with placing a protective mine field using the M131 modular pack mine systems (MOPMS).
The MOPMS is a man-portable mine deployment system that contains 17 antitank mines and four antipersonnel mines. Once activated, the system deploys the mines from the case, quickly creating a mine field. Once the squad members had correctly placed the systems, the Sapper leader then had to correctly program the M71 remote control unit.
The most challenging thing is setting up the minefield in only 30 minutes with no discrepancies and controlling all with a single RCU, said Staff Sgt. Rian Meyer, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the lane.
Finally, the squads were graded on their tactical performance as they arrived at their extraction site where they were assailed by enemy forces. During the engagement, the squads suffered a simulated casualty. They were required to apply life-saving measures and evacuate their wounded to an alternate pickup site.
All the Sapper leaders that competed possess leadership talent and ability, said Bell.
He added that putting small unit tactics performance into a competition was what made for effective training.
One competitor of the company’s Sapper stakes remarked on the qualities and experience a Sapper leader has to offer.
“He’s an expert in his field,” said Staff Sgt. Stephen Olson, an A Company squad leader and graduate of SLC.
Olson said he has seen the difference SLC experience can make in combat. On a deployment where he and his team had to remove a large number of trees, Olson witnessed two soldiers making suggestions on how to accomplish the task.
He described one engineer’s idea to use detonation cord to cut down the trees which resulted in failure. He said a Sapper in the group offered an alternative technique that was ultimately much more effective.
“We did it the way that we used in Sapper school and it worked for us,” he said. “Going to Sapper school allows you to think on your feet quicker and gives you different ideas and ways to implement the types of materials you have.”
Olson offered advice for those interested in attending the course.
“You need to start training,” he said. “You definitely need to be physically fit before you go. Hit the books and get with someone who’s been in the school.”
For the paratroopers of the Falcon’s engineer company, having so many course graduates as mentors encourages them to take on the challenging school.
“I would love to go to Sapper school,” said Spc. Justin Teasley, a team leader in A Company. “It would give me an advantage to train the guys in my team.”
“It’s been a long-term goal of mine to be able to attend the school,” he added.
He said he knows the stresses of the intense training and what it will take to make it through successfully.
“It’s knowledge-based and physically demanding. You have to be in great shape as well as know a wide variety of engineer tasks.”
Being a combat engineer in a company with the greatest share of Sapper tabs is a source of pride for Teasley. He said his leaders have had the best training offered for engineers and that they can pass that experience to junior Paratroopers, making them stronger as a company.
“We’re a more elite company and it gives us a better advantage when it comes to training.”
At this time, A Company has two more paratroopers planning to go to Sapper Leaders Course in November.